Goldsmith’s Hall and the Goldsmiths of Parliament Square

Goldsmith’s Hall and Jewellers Shops from the Painting
Goldsmiths Hall and Jewellers Shops from Le Conte Engraving

Goldsmith’s Hall

A prominent feature of the Painting is the Goldsmith’s Hall occupying the north-west corner of the Square adjoining the Parliament Hall, on the site which is now the entrance to the Signet Library. The Hall had a relatively short life having been built in 1745 and burnt down in 1796 and thus its presence helps to date the Painting.  Goldsmith’s Hall was the headquarters of one of the fourteen Incorporated Trades of the City having separated from the Incorporation of Hammermen in 1687.  Under a charter of James VI the Goldsmiths exercised a strict monopoly of their trade.

‘None should be allowed to work, or deal in gold or silver, without having his work subjected to inspection of the assay-master, …all the work…undergoes a most accurate and faithful trial, and afterwards is impressed with a public stamp characteristic of its standard fineness’.[1] 

The Incorporation of Goldsmiths survives to this day and is the oldest consumer protection group in Scotland.  In Edinburgh in the late eighteenth century Parliament Square was the centre of goldsmith activities which included silversmithing and jewellery manufacture; they were the most numerous of the tradesmen who occupied the Square. Deitert[2]records twenty seven goldsmiths who had their shops in Parliament Square or the Luckenbooths and a dozen more in the adjacent High Street.  Chambers states that ‘the whole trade was collected in the Parliament Close’[3].  In the Painting the names of five goldsmiths can be seen above their shops attached to the wall of St Giles – William Auld, Peter Mathie, Patrick Robertson, Alexander Gardner and William Dempster, while those of David Downie and James Welsh can be seen on the ground floor of Goldsmith’s Hall where they rented rooms.  

In the early part of the century the goldsmiths prospered and some like George Heriot of an earlier date, became money lenders. Indeed before the establishment of the Bank of Scotland in 1695 they were in effect the bankers to the public. They were regarded (or regarded themselves) as being a cut above the rest of the craft guilds and appeared in public with scarlet cloak, cocked hat and cane.  Chambers describes a custom of the time[4]:-

It was then as customary a thing in the country for the intending bridegroom to take a journey, a few weeks before his marriage, to the Parliament Close, in order to buy the silver spoons, as it was for the bride to have all her clothes and stock of bed-furniture inspected by a committee of matrons upon the wedding eve. And this important transaction occasioned two journeys: one, in order to select the spoons, and prescribe the initials which were to be marked upon them; the other to receive and pay for them. It must be understood that the goldsmiths of Edinburgh then kept scarcely any goods on hand in their shops, and that the smallest article had to be spoken from them some time before it was wanted…..It had been usual, upon both occasions above mentioned, for the goldsmith to adjourn with his customer to John’s Coffee-house,… and to receive the order or the payment, in a comfortable manner, over a dram…

Notable goldsmiths of Parliament Square.

George Heriot (1563-1624)

George Heriot became a member of the guild of Edinburgh Goldsmiths in 1588 and was elected Deacon in 1593.  His premises consisted of a small structure known as a krame which was one of three located near the south west corner of St Giles, where the entrance to the Signet Library now stands, opposite the entrance of the Old Tolbooth.[5]  This workshop, only seven feet square, contained his furnace, bellows and stone crucible, with which he produced jewellery of such magnificence that it attracted the attention of James VI and I and more particularly of his extravagant wife, Queen Anne of Denmark, whose fondness for jewellery was insatiable.  Heriot’s workshop survived almost two hundred years after Heriot’s death, being eventually demolished in 1809 when his old lintel, forge, bellows, and crucible were discovered.

Heriot became an influential figure in Edinburgh being elected to the Town Council in 1591 and becoming Deacon of the Goldsmiths in 1593. He was appointed jeweller to the royal family, with whom he became increasingly involved, even to the extent of being allowed a room in the Palace of Holyrood in which he could conduct his trade.  With the Union of Crowns in 1603, the royal household moved to London.  Heriot followed and set up his business there which flourished under the royal patronage.  Over the years the King and Queen became increasingly dependent upon Heriot not only for his jewellery but also for his services as pawnbroker and money lender (at 10%) in times of crisis; he was in effect their private banker. In The Fortunes of Nigel, Walter Scott gives Heriot the nickname of Jingling Geordie and paints a vivid (fictional) account of Heriot’s financial dealings in London and his relationship with the King [6]. Heriot died in London in 1624 and was buried at St Martins-in-the-Fields.  Although he had been married twice, he had no legitimate children and outlived both his wives.  After a number of small legacies to friends and two illegitimate daughters, he left the bulk of his considerable estate to the Town Council of Edinburgh for the erection of a hospital ‘for the education, nourishing and upbringing of youths being puir orphans and fatherless children of decayit burgesses and friemen.’  From this bequest George Heriot’s School was established and flourishes to this day. The Heriot–Watt University, another flourishing institution, was also partly funded from Heriot’s bequest.


Sculpture of George Heriot mounted in the south-west corner of the Scott Monument in Princes Street. He is holding a model of Heriot School. The statues placed around the Scott Monument were characters from Scott’s novels. Heriot figures prominently in Scott’s ‘ The Fortunes of Nigel’.

James Gilliland 1797-1850

James Gilliland, a Parliament Square goldsmith and jeweller, was the brother-in-law of the publisher John Murray for whom he acted as his Edinburgh agent, negotiating on his behalf with Edinburgh publishers and booksellers and collecting debts.  In return, Murray sold Gilliland’s jewellery in his London shop in Abermarle Street.  Gilliland is chiefly remembered for his association with the artist, Henry Raeburn, who was apprenticed to him at the age of sixteen in 1772.  Raeburn may have lived with the Gillilands, for he had recently lost both his parents and it was quite usual at that time for apprentices to live with their masters. The young Raeburn demonstrated his artistic ability by producing high quality water colour miniature portraits on ivory, including those of James Gilliland and his wife Elizabeth, who was John Murray’s sister.


James Ker (1700-1768) and William Dempster

Some of the goldsmiths lived in their workshops.  One of the most successful was James Ker (later Kerr), whose shop joined on to the wall of St Giles at the entrance to Parliament Square.  Ker was one of those who had received a generous charitable award for losses sustained in the great fire of 1724. Chambers described that he:

…lived… in the small space of the flat over the shop and the cellar under it, which was lighted by a grating in the pavement of the square.  The subterraneous part of this house was chiefly devoted to the purposes of a nursery, and proved so insalubrious that all his children died successively …with the exception of his son Robert, who, being born much more weakly than the rest, had the good luck to be sent to the country to be nursed, and afterwards grew up to be the author of a work entitled The Life of Robert Bruce…[7]

The Ker Dempster shop and residence. That Ker’s name no longer appears indicates that the illustration was made after Ker’s death in in 1768.

From this humble dwelling Ker produced some of the finest examples of his craft. He was elected Deacon of the Goldsmiths on two occasions, thereby becoming a member of the Edinburgh Town Council.  Like the watchmaker James Dalgleish, Ker was made a captain of the City Guard at the time of the ’45 Jacobite uprising and, on the instruction of the Lord Provost, Archibald Stewart, offered no resistance to the invading army, thereby confirming his loyalty to George II. This served him well when he was elected Member of Parliament for Edinburgh from 1747-1754 in competition with Edinburgh’s long serving Lord Provost, George Drummond.[8]

In 1739 Ker took on an apprentice, William Dempster, who became his son-in-law by marrying his daughter, Violet.  Ker and Dempster went into a successful partnership.  Below is an example of their craftsmanship.  In the Painting their shop is clearly seen with the name DEMPSTER alone above the door. Ker died in 1768 and Dempster became the sole owner thereafter.  Dempster died in 1793, so the fact that his name remains displayed in the Painting, suggests that the Painting was unlikely to have been made long after that date.

Examples of craftmanship of Ker and Dempster City Museum Edinburgh


George and William Auld

Shops of Auld goldsmith and Reid watch maker

Another shop front which figures prominently in the Painting is that of ‘Auld Goldsmith’ in the northwest corner of the Square adjoining that of ‘Reid Watchmaker’.  This shop was almost certainly that of George and William Auld, the only goldsmiths of that name recorded in Scotland’s Families and the Edinburgh Goldsmiths[9].  No relationship can be found between this William Auld and the printer of the same name whose son, also William, became Reid’s apprentice watchmaker and later, partner.    


David Downie and the Pike Plot

Kay’s engraving of David Downie

David Downie, another notable goldsmith of Parliament Square, had his workshop in Goldsmiths Hall (see illustration above). He is remembered not so much for his skill as for his revolutionary behaviour. During the French Revolution, political division between the Whigs and Tories reached a peak of intensity into which inevitably all sections of society including the Goldsmiths were drawn.  Peter Mathie, the Deacon of the Goldsmiths at that time, was a Tory strongly opposed to reform and Catholic emancipation.  David Downie, was a Whig and one of the few Catholic members of the Incorporation, of which he had at one time been Treasurer. He had joined the Society of the Friends of the People, a group established in 1792 with the objectives of ending the war with France and obtaining parliamentary reform. Downie tried without success to get the Incorporation to support his cause.  The resulting dispute became rancorous and was much reported in the press. William Auld had his name erased from the register of goldsmiths for supporting Downie.  Frustrated at the failure of his efforts to raise a peaceful protest, Downie together with Robert Watt, a wine merchant, planned to arouse a revolt against authority in Edinburgh. 

Their hare-brained scheme was to try to gather a body of like-minded dissidents and arm them with pikes and spears. They would then set fire to buildings in the city and attack the soldiers from the Castle as they emerged to deal with the fires.  Having occupied the Castle they would overcome the City authorities and persuade the King to agree to Parliamentary reform.  Remarkably they were in contact with a group in London, the British Convention, with similar ambitions.  They progressed to the extent of distributing seditious leaflets and ordering 4000 pikes and spears from two local blacksmiths, some of which were delivered to Watt’s home.  When 47 of these were discovered, Watt and Downie were arrested and brought to trial for High Treason. 

Their trials in September 1794 attracted much attention. The charges against the men were “organizing a plot for a general rising in Edinburgh, to seize the Castle, the Bank, the persons of the Judges and proclaim a Provisional Republican Government…[10]

Watt was tried first. His defending counsel, Robert Hamilton, drew attention to the absurdity of the charge:[11]

Could seven persons use 47 pikes? Could 47 pikes take the Castle, massacre the soldiers, seize the Judges and overcome the government?….if the cup of this man’s iniquity is full, the dregs are bitter, yet he must drink them; but if otherwise, and he shall yet meet with a deliverance, then it falls to you Gentlemen of the Jury, to dash the cup from his trembling lip, that he may not taste the bitter drops.

Watt was found guilty, the jury taking only minutes to come to their verdict.

Downie was next tried.  The same evidence was heard.  In his defence his counsel, Robert Cullen, said that the plan ‘was one of the wildest phrenzies (sic) that ever entered into the head of man’ and maintained that the real leader was Watt – Downie was only interested in reform.  The Jury found Downie guilty but took some time to come to their verdict and made a recommendation for mercy’.

High Treason was the most serious offence demanding the most serious penalty, yet even so the sentence seems remarkable in its brutality: –

You, and each of you, … to be drawn upon a hurdle to the place of execution there to be hanged by the neck, but not till you are dead; for you are then to be taken down, your heart to be cut out, and your bowels burned before your face, your head and  limbs severed from your bodies and held up to the public view, and your bodies shall remain at the disposal of His Majesty; and may the Lord have mercy on  your souls.[12]

Watt’s execution took place on 15 October 1794 at the Old Tolbooth to which he was conveyed from the Castle on a black-painted hurdle drawn by a white horse, amid a procession of the magistracy, with a strong military guard.  He exhibited a picture of the most abject dejection.[13] The more ghoulish parts of his sentence were remitted and he was simply hanged and beheaded.  Downie was granted a reprieve; his sentence being reduced to a year’s imprisonment and thereafter banishment for life.  At the completion of his jail sentence he was transported to America where he settled in Augusta, Georgia.  There he resumed his occupation as a goldsmith and died aged eighty as a respected citizen.[14]  One of Downie’s descendants became the President of the United States, Ronald Reagan[15].

Sir Walter Scott who had attended the trials wrote to his aunt Miss Christian Rutherford that he had ‘Sat in court for Watt’s Trial from 7 in the morning to till two the next morning, but as I had provided myself with some cold meat and Bottle of Wine I continued to support fatigue pretty well.’[16]

He approved of Watt’s verdict but in a later letter he wrote; ‘It is a matter of general regret that his associate Downie should have received a reprieve…’[17]


Troubled times for the Goldsmiths

As the century progressed the Goldsmiths faced increasing competition as a result of the industrial revolution.  The invention of Sheffield Plate and factory-produced articles from England undercut the prices of their hand crafted goods and despite the efforts of the Incorporation, whose charter gave them a monopoly of their trade within the city of Edinburgh, shopkeepers who were not members, started selling these manufactured goods.[18]

 In 1796 the Goldsmiths Hall and all the records of the Incorporation of Goldsmiths were lost in a fire which started in the workshop of Robert Bowman who had just taken a lease in the Hall having completed his apprenticeship with James Gilliland. 

Despite these problems and the political shenanigans of some of its members, the Incorporation of Goldsmiths, one of the oldest trade organisations in the country, continues to flourish in its new location in the New Town.  It continues to administer the Assay Office for Scotland and is much involved in educational activities and charities connected with the craft.


[1]Arnot p406

[2]Dietert, R R and Dietert, J M Scotland’s Families and the Edinburgh Goldsmiths, p276

[3]Chambers, R Traditions of Edinburgh p112

[4]Ibid p111-2

[5] Grant I p175

[6] Sir Walter Scott, who coined the nickname Jingling Geordie, gives an imaginary account of Heriot’s banking methods in Fortunes of Nigel Chapters 4 and 5.

[7] Chambers  loc. cit. p111.  Elsewhere in Eminent Scotsmen Chambers details that Robert Ker was born in a mansion in the Borders and not in the squalor of Parliament Square, so he appears to have had a better start in life than his siblings. He went on to qualify as a surgeon but spent most of his career as an author.  Among his works were Memoirs of Mr William Smellie  and History of Scotland during the reign of Robert Bruce.

[8] Fortescue, W I  (2014) James Ker, Member of Parliament for Edinburgh, 1747-1754 BOEC  10 p17-44

[9] Dietert loc. sit. p118.  George Auld was born in 1730 and became a freeman in 1754.  His son William born 1760, became a freeman in 1778. Three William Aulds figure in this review which may lead to some confusion.  They are William the goldsmith who is mentioned in this chapter. William the printer and his son William the clockmaker who are referred to in Watch and Clockmaking Chapter .  It is likely that they are all related although the connection between the goldsmith and the others has not been established.

[10]Letters of Sir Walter Scott vol 1 p24 fn

[11] Anon Trials of Robert Watt and David Downie  p50-1

[12] Ibid p83

[13] Kay’s Portraits vol 1 p354 fn

[14] Fortesque,W I (2012) Edinburgh Goldsmiths and Radical Politics, 1793-94. The Case of David Downie BOEC NS 9 p33-57.  Fortesque gives a full account of  the Downie affair from which much of this section has been obtained.

[15] Scotsman 7 July 2004.  President Regan visited Castleland Church in Paisley during his trip to the UK in 1991 in order to see the place where his forebear’s daughter, Peggy Downie, had married Claud Wilson in 1807.

[16] Letters vol I p34 letter to Miss C Rutherford 5 September 1794

[17] Ibid p37 (Letter undated ? October /November 1794)

[18]Fortesque, W I  (2012) Edinburgh Goldsmiths and Radical Politics, 1793-94 BOEC p37-9